by Zinta Aistars
A newish friend recently said something that stunned me. It has been circling in my addled brain ever since. Apparently, from time to time, he reads my blog. “Your son mind that he isn’t your favorite child?” he said. I blinked. Favorite child? I have two. Recent blog-followers will note that I do indeed write more often now about my daughter, to whom I often refer to as “Blondie,” and much less often refer to my son ... at all.
Handing my son a bowl of oatmeal with raisins and brown sugar this Sunday morning, I tipped my head to one side and said, “Hey. Do you mind that you are not my favorite child?”
He raised one eyebrow at me. He didn’t need to ask. He knows. He was there. I was there. The entire grueling, rocky path he chose to travel. It took a long, long time for it to be Blondie’s turn. And Blondie, not unlike me, still has nightmares about losing her brother.
“I don’t write about you anymore,” I say, sitting down with my own bowl of oatmeal. I pour maple-walnut coffee for both of us.
“Yeah. Please don’t.”
And I won’t. But for this once, if only to set the record straight. My son is now a grown man, tall and strong, a closely trimmed beard on a face that reminds me a great deal of his father’s—someone neither of us has seen for some time now. When he did resurface, and my son reunited with him, neither one recognized the other. But I do. When I at times rest my hand on my son’s shoulder, my hand remembers that shoulder. It is a powerhouse shoulder, thick and broad with hard muscle. Just resting my hand on that shoulder for a moment makes me feel safe.
But neither one of us speaks anymore about the eight years when nothing in life was safe. And, like my daughter, I never slept a night in those years from beginning to end. Not one. And I never woke assured that I would find my son still alive. He was a young boy, a man-child, who did not understand how to grow up to be a man. Like so many boys whose fathers had abandoned them, he rebelled against the world as he knew it, played at a machismo that was a warped exaggeration of what it means to be a man, and the anger and hurt inside him roiled and boiled in a ferocity he expressed in every way he shouldn’t.
I never gave up on him. Because he was my house on fire, I focused all my energy on putting out that fire, at very least keep it from burning the house to ash, and my daughter, desperately doing everything right, was the little tree growing alongside the burning house, feeling its flame, leaves curling in from the heat, yet holding steady. How hard those years were on her, too, I would come to understand fully only much later, when the fire had at long last been put out. The quiet ones suffer, too. Her occasional nightmares today, of finding her brother bloodied and bullet-ridden and dead, speak to me of her suffering, just as I did. Years later, we would do our weeping together.
He knows. For all those nights that I roamed the dark streets hunting him down, bringing him home again, he knows. He knows, for all those nights I posted bail and tossed him into the car, his lips in a tight line, while I tried hard to see the road home through my tears. How often could one heart break and still keep beating? It beat for him. He knows, for those times I pushed a six-foot tall man against the wall and dared him, dared him to just once lift that hand, until it dropped back down to his side. He knows, for the funerals of his teenage friends that I attended—as much to honor the young lives lost as the mothers who mourned them—the bloodless bullet holes in their chests sewn shut, and bowed my head in prayer I felt no one heard. There but for the grace of God...
God did hear. My son is still alive, while too many of his childhood friends are not. The rage inside of that boy seemed to have no end, no limit. Yet there was that day when we had sat in a room with other families fighting the good fight, and the group facilitator, savior of the day, put us through one test and trial after another. When the facilitator placed a blindfold over my eyes and told my teenage son to lead me through the woods outside to retrieve the prize, we returned sooner than any other, unscathed and prize in hand. The facilitator seemed surprised. Others were still stumbling blindly through the woods. I shrugged, “I trust my son with my life.”
And when the facilitator asked my boy to place the empty chair in the room, the one where his father should have been sitting, symbolically at the distance he felt between them—my son opened the door to the outside and carried the chair out into the woods. When he was asked to stand at the distance he felt with his mother, he looked at the facilitator and then walked over to me. We stood nose to nose. For all his rebellion, he trusted me with his life.
Our struggle was not over that year. Nor the next. Or the ones after. It was just a couple weeks ago that my now grown son, a good man if still tight-lipped, brought me a yellowed front page of the Kalamazoo Gazette. The front page story, now ten years old, was about his best friend, gunned down in the road by the police after a long car chase. Not a year goes by that my son doesn’t mark the day.
“I was going to be in that car with him that night,” he said, holding the paper across his knees.
“I know. That was the night I realized my prayers were heard, after all.”
Although I always had to wonder about the prayers of that other mother, murdered a year later by her husband with a single bullet to the head. The night she died, she had argued with her husband because he was wearing one of her son’s shirts. I remembered at her son’s funeral how she had said all she wanted now was to die with her son.
Most mothers would. Not only die once, but a thousand times, for their sons. And so, I repost here a very short story I wrote for my son in 2002, because even then—he knew. As he knows now. As my daughter knows, too. And with this, I will lapse into silence once again about that young man of whom I am so proud, for the road traveled, for the demons fought, for the wars won, for the wounds still healing, but the great heart that endured.
A Thousand Deaths Plus One
By Zinta Aistars
"Don't shut me out," she whispers to the back of his head. "Would die a thousand deaths for you, know I would, know I would, you know it," she whispers with her lips right up against the rough short growth of his hair. Her hands reach around to touch his face, turned away from her, his body turned away from her, his eyes turned away from her. Light fuzz, bit of rough, cool cheeks, she smoothes her palms over his face and contours her fingers to the shape she has created. From one micro-magical cell deep in her body, eighteen years ago, she created this face.
She is perched like Mama Bird on the high back of the couch and her legs are up against either side of his shoulders. He didn't move when she perched behind him. She could talk and talk, her knees pressed into his shoulders, and he would not even flinch. Only the occasional tilt of his head would hint at some listening, random catching of a word.
Her fingers spread through his cropped hair. She loves this rough stuff, this short scrub, on no one else but him. This isn't just for him, this touching. It's her food, too. Her spirit leans into the touch, drinks of it, breaks its bread, and inhales. Heel of her palm stroking the length of his skull, fingertips down to the base of his neck, tracing the cords, tensing and releasing of his muscles. He wants to resist, she senses that he does, but her warm hands turn him inside out. His head drops back lightly into the cup of her hands.
"Miss me when I'm gone," she croons, singing her heartache for him to hear, "but erase me when I'm here, what the hell is that?"
His head tips, then rests, tips, neck tensing, rests again.
"Think I don't know, think I don't understand, but oh baby," she hums, "oh baby. Oh..."
She scrapes nail tips across his skull, his hair snapping to attention. Presses her thumb pads into the valley at the base of his neck until she feels the knot give. Circles at his temples, ever so, ever so soft. His shoulders droop.
"You give me hell," she hisses, "and I'll catch it. Kick, scream, tear, doesn't matter, I'm not letting you go into your own hell without me." She lays her cheek against his warm skull. The scent of his skin, of his hair, makes her weep. Just like the first time. Eighteen years, eighteen minutes, no difference. She'd rock this baby until he was seventy three. Then she'd be gone. But her wings would whisper soft as her voice now in his dreams.
Never let go.
Now her fingers trace the curl of his ears, cool to the touch, like intricate shells. If only she could make him hear. Patter of the rain on the roof, splash of a foaming wave, chatter of a pesky squirrel, sigh of a lullaby. If only she could make him hear.
She lets the silence sit a moment longer, then hums, then sings, ever so, ever so softly a lullaby from those long ago years... of little bears, and dancing sheep, and sleep, sweet child's sleep, and the promise of so many bright blue mornings to come...
There is a tremor in his shoulders. She stops. Instead, presses her lips to the curve of his skull. Closing her eyes, prays to all good and protecting spirits: spread your wings across my child, spread them wide and hold him close.
"Don't shut me out," she says once more, so he won't forget, but it does not matter. She will stay by the closed door. She will wait.
He gets up slowly, letting her hands drop between her knees, stands for a moment, still, then leaves.